Falling upwards, p.27
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       Falling Upwards, p.27

           Richard Holmes

  Altogether, it was a brilliant but risky initiative. The Journal des débats called it the launching of the ‘Balloon Government’. But some critics believed it was, rather literally, putting all their eggs in ‘one basket’. In the event of their deaths, or – even worse – their capture alive, the propaganda coup would turn devastatingly in favour of the Prussians.29

  Victor Hugo later recorded in his vivid diary, Choses vues, how he happened to be out ‘wandering the boulevards’ that morning, and turning his steps towards Montmartre, chanced to witness the last few minutes before the launch. In fact he had almost certainly been alerted by the ever-resourceful Nadar. Hugo found quite a crowd in the big, bleak square: a detachment of General Trochu’s infantry, a cluster of bemedalled officers, a whispering group of Parisian workers, the assembled Aérostiers, and Nadar looking pale and exhausted. Then there were the two balloons, one dirty yellow – the Armand Barbès – and one dirty white – the George Sand – neither in the least impressive.

  The white balloon was festooned with limp tricolour flags, and was clearly intended as the decoy. Nonetheless the George Sand carried a full payload of mail, and also two dauntless American businessmen, a Mr Reynolds and a Mr May, who were going to arrange a huge arms deal for Gambetta. Besides, Hugo noted, this was a literary balloon and a lady’s balloon as well: the novelist’s name alone would certainly put the philistine Prussians in their place.30

  Hugo’s diary recorded tersely:

  There were whispers running through the crowd: ‘Gambetta’s going to leave! Gambetta’s going to leave!’ And there, in a thick overcoat, under an otter-fur cap, near the yellow balloon in a huddle of men, I caught sight of Gambetta. He was sitting on the pavement and pulling on fur-lined boots. He had a leather bag slung across his shoulders. He took it off, clambered into the balloon basket, and a young man, the aeronaut, tied the bag into the rigging above Gambetta’s head. It was 10.30, a fine day, a slight southerly wind, a gentle autumn sun. Suddenly the yellow balloon took off carrying three men, one of them Gambetta. Then the white balloon, also carrying three men, one of them waving a large tricolour flag. Under Gambetta’s balloon was a small tricolour pennant. There were cries of ‘Vive la République.’31

  This historic moment was also commemorated in several popular prints and engravings, some more imaginative than others. The main difference between them lies not in the depiction of the balloons, but in the attitude and mood of the watching soldiers and Parisian crowd. In some, the mood is evidently tense and sober, even sceptical. In others the crowd is packed, wildly supportive and enthusiastic.

  One possibly genuine photograph has survived, which shows the moment after lift-off in the place Saint-Pierre. The Armand Barbès is about twenty feet up, swinging in what is evidently a high wind (not Hugo’s gentle breeze). There are no tricolour pennants attached anywhere. Gambetta, looking tense, has grabbed the edge of the basket to steady himself, and is dramatically holding out his fur hat to bid farewell to a small group of soldiers and civilians below.

  But the mood is subdued. On the left, some soldiers raise their képis, one gentleman doffs his top hat, a guardsman stands impassively leaning on his musket with fixed bayonet. To the right, near the solitary gas lamp, the tall, spindly figure of Nadar can be seen standing alone, still and solemn, his right arm raised in a silent salute. Behind him, near the bell tents, are a loose circle of about a dozen watching militia men, either standing or sitting. Not one has either lifted his hat or raised his arm. Compared to the popular prints, the square is shown as largely empty, and the ground scattered with hastily discarded ballast sacks. Even if some of the figures have been improved, the authenticity of the bleak photograph is striking.

  Owing to an unexpected wind shift, Gambetta’s balloon suddenly turned almost due north, passing over Saint-Denis and Le Bourget, an area known to be infested with Prussians. Nadar watched it with binoculars from the Butte, ice in his heart. Worse, the Armand Barbès could not gain sufficient height before crossing the siege lines. A brisk fusillade of musketfire rose up towards them, some balls hissing past, and several striking the base of the willow basket with a sharp crack. Then some actually pierced the canopy, causing the support ropes to vibrate above the passengers. It was a moment of terror. But as the American Civil War aeronauts had discovered, these produced only tiny, neat punctures and failed to ignite the gas.

  But the position was still perilous. Gambetta was grazed in the hand by a musketball, and fell back stunned against the sacks of mail. The balloon lost buoyancy, sank, and actually came down in a field near Chantilly that had just been vacated by a squadron of Uhlan cavalry. Alerted by warning shouts from field workers, the pilot hurled out ballast and the Armand Barbès lurched back into the air again. The Prussian cavalry, in full cry, pursued them cross-country for several miles, as in some nightmare dream sequence. When they crossed the village of Creil, twenty-seven miles from Paris, they were still only seven hundred feet above the ground, well within musketshot.

  Finally, after about three hours, they skimmed over the heavily wooded region of Compiègne, near Epineuse, thirty-eight miles from Paris. Here they seemed to have temporarily lost their pursuers, and the pilot decided to risk a quick emergency landing. But he missed the open ground, and crashed into an oak tree, where the balloon hung suspended in the branches for several minutes, helpless should the Uhlans arrive. Eventually some local villagers climbed up and pulled them clear, bundling them and the mailbags unceremoniously into a hay cart. It is not clear whether Gambetta was recognised at this point, or even if the villagers realised that they were dealing with Parisians rather than Prussians. It was also said in some reports that the bearded man had been found hanging upside down from the anchor rope.32

  Luckily, the mayor of Epineuse did recognise Gambetta, and realising the imminent danger from Prussian troops, transferred the whole party into his private coach and hurried them northwards towards Amiens. Halfway there, at the village of Montdidier, Gambetta was bandaged and revived with stiff tots of eau de vie. He sent off a suitably clipped and optimistic message by carrier pigeon:

  Arrived after accident in forest at Epineuse. Balloon deflated. Escaped Prussian rifle fire thanks to mayor of Epineuse and reached here Montdidier whence leave one hour for Amiens then railway to Le Mans or Tours. Prussian lines end at Clermont, Compiègne, Breteuil in the Oise. No Prussians in the Somme. Everywhere the people are rising. Government of National Defence acclaimed on all sides. – Léon Gambetta.33

  At Amiens, they spent the night recovering, and by the following evening they – and the mailbags – had safely reached Tours via Rouen. The crew of the George Sand were already there. At the railway station, lined with National Guards, Gambetta climbed up on a porter’s trolley and gave one of the great fighting, patriotic speeches with which he would rouse the nation: ‘If we cannot make a pact with Victory, let us make a pact with Death!’ The republican government in exile proclaimed a mighty propaganda coup.34

  From then on, the National Council for Defence was committed to balloons. It was clear that they were fully capable of breaking the Prussian siege, and that combined with the railway network, they could outwit and outrun the Prussian occupation forces beyond Paris. Two non-stop balloon-manufacturing centres were quickly established: one at the Gare d’Orléans (now Austerlitz), under the Godards; and the other at the Gare du Nord, under one of Nadar’s original Aérostiers, Camille Dartois.

  The high-ceilinged stations were empty of trains and so provided huge and convenient open-plan buildings where balloons could be mass-produced. The vast stretches of balloon material were spread out on huge trestle tables, where they were cut, sewn and varnished by hundreds of volunteer dressmakers. They could then be hung from the overhead iron girders above the tracks, inflated with air pumps, dried, and moved rapidly to their launch sites at the La Villette and Vaugirard gasworks.

  The plan was to mass-produce a standard siege balloon of seventy thousand cubic feet, made of ch
eap calico, capable of taking two men, a cage of pigeons, and at least three hundred kilos of mail. They were essentially ‘disposable’, designed to last for a single flight. The Dartois balloons from the Gare du Nord were plain, no-nonsense white – like button mushrooms in the sky, it was said; while Godard’s balloons at the Gare d’Orléans were all candy-striped, suggesting a certain teasing spirit of levity in the face of Prussian boorishness.35

  Crucial to their propaganda value were the names assigned to each balloon. Knowing that a thousand Prussian telescopes and field-glasses would be furiously trained on every canopy as it floated slowly overhead, the Defence Council launched above the Prussians a veritable checklist of French genius. But admirably, and in the true Enlightenment tradition, they did not limit themselves exclusively to French citizens. In effect they sent over an airborne cours de civilisation.

  The balloon names naturally included many inspiring soldiers and statesmen: Lafayette, Armand Barbès, Gambetta, Louis Blanc, Washington, Garibaldi and Franklin. But equally there were many scientists: Archimède, Kepler, Newton, Volta, Davy, Lavoisier. There were some inventors: Daguerre, Niepce, Montgolfier; but surprisingly only two writers: Victor Hugo and George Sand. There were a number of patriotic salutes: La Ville de Paris, La Ville d’Orléans, La Bretagne, La Gironde, L’Armée de la Loire. Finally there were several well-chosen political watchwords for the Prussian soldiery to consider: La Liberté, L’Egalité, La République-Universelle, La Délivrance. There was also the occasional direct provocation: on 17 December they sent up a balloon named Le Gutenberg.36

  Of course all these names also heartened the French patriots below, not least in Paris itself, and served to stiffen the ‘sentiment of resistance’. It is true that later, when night launches were adopted, this propaganda became much less visible, at least to the Prussians. Yet these balloon names continued to be circulated in military reports, newspaper editorials and news telegrams on both sides; and eventually had their rippling propaganda effect right across Europe and as far afield as Scandinavia and America.

  Hugo was delighted when Nadar arranged for balloon No. 13 to carry his name skyward. The Victor Hugo was launched on 18 October, and piloted by a member of the No. 1 Aérostiers, Jean-Pierre Nadal. In an exceptional gesture, the launch site was fixed in the gardens of the Tuileries, to achieve maximum publicity. The balloon rose amidst cheering crowds, carrying besides its cargo of postbags and pigeons several thousand copies of a hastily-written propaganda letter by Hugo addressed ‘To the Prussians’. It urged them, in the most magniloquent terms, to sign an honourable armistice, leave French soil and march peacefully home. ‘I believe its effect,’ confided Hugo, ‘will be incalculable!’37

  From 7 October 1870, depending on wind direction and weather conditions – and it was becoming a bitter winter – postal balloons were launched regularly two or three times a week. Night launches began on 18 November. A total of over fifty balloons had been launched by the end of December. The Prussians were not amused by all this, and Bismarck was recorded as remarking drily, ‘Décidément, ces diables de Parisiens sont bien ingénieux.’ He was pleased when three balloons, the Normandie, the Galilée and the Daguerre, were unexpectedly captured in November, having landed behind enemy lines in bad weather. Both the crews and the mailbags sinisterly disappeared.

  Bismarck wrote to the American Ambassador shortly after: ‘I take this opportunity of informing you that several balloons sent out of Paris have fallen into our hands and that the persons travelling in them will be tried by a court martial. I beg you to bring this fact to the French government’s notice, adding that any person using this means of transport to cross our lines without permission, or to engage in correspondence to the detriment of our troops, will be subjected, if they fall into our power, to the same treatment.’38 This was a fairly explicit warning that balloonists would not be treated as regular combatants, but would be summarily shot as spies.

  After the capture of the three balloons, launches from La Villette and Vaugirard tended to be at night, allowing them several hours of darkness to clear the Prussian lines. But this made navigation even more haphazard. Uncertain of their line of flight or their location, fearful of being shot as spies if they were captured, aeronauts were inclined to press on as far as possible before they came down low enough to establish their whereabouts. This resulted in some fantastic long-distance flights, but also several tragic disasters.

  La Ville d’Orléans took off on the night of 24 November, ran into a storm, and landed fifteen hours later on a snow-covered mountainside in Norway. It was a record distance of 840 miles, at an average speed of just under sixty miles per hour, passing through air temperatures as low as –32 degrees Fahrenheit. Astonishingly, the two-man crew managed to hike through snowdrifts to Christiana (present-day Oslo), and all the mailbags but one were safely retrieved by Norwegian farmers.39

  Le Jacquard, launched on 28 November, disappeared in another direction, over the Irish Sea, and was never seen again. Its one-man crew, a twenty-seven-year-old sailor named Alexandre Prince, had given a number of rousing patriotic interviews before his departure, and became the subject of several poems and posters after his mysterious disappearance.fn37 La Ville de Paris, launched on 15 December, landed in Wetzlar, Germany, where its mail was immediately seized and its crew probably shot. Le Général Chantzy, launched on 20 December, went as far east as Bavaria, and met a similarly unknown fate.

  Despite these tragic failures, the Parisian enthusiasm for balloon post did not falter, nor the supply of aeronauts to deliver it. In fact balloons swiftly became vital to Parisian morale, a heroic part of the siege mythology. ‘The wind was our postman, the balloon was our letterbox,’ recalled the poet Théophile Gautier. ‘With each departing aeronaut, our deepest thoughts also took flight, our hopes and fears, our wishes for absent loved ones, our heartaches and our longings, everything that was good and fine in the human spirit … took to the air.’41


  With thousands of private letters going out each week from Paris, the increasingly urgent question was how to organise a postal reply system. Albert Tissandier – not to be outdone by his younger brother – had successfully flown out in the Jean-Bart on 14 October. He now joined Gaston in his attempts to establish a balloon service, flying back into Paris with sacks of return mail. After taking meteorological advice about the prevailing autumnal winds, the brothers set up Rouen, on the river Seine, as their centre of operations. They were sixty-eight miles north-west of Paris, potentially a four-hour flight back to the capital. With the approval of Tours, a temporary mail-sorting bureau was established at the Rouen post office, with letters from all over France being brought in by rail. On 7 November they took off in the Jean-Bart from Rouen gasworks, carrying 250 kilos of return mail on a promising south-easterly air current.

  Their plan was to follow the meandering line of the Seine all the way to Paris. By evening they had gone twenty miles in precisely the right direction, and when the wind dropped at dusk, they came down stealthily outside the little town of Les Andelys on the Seine. They were now only forty-nine miles from Paris, and had every hope of reaching their destination the next day, although they were dangerously close to the Prussian lines. But the next morning the wind had backed and was blowing to the north. The Tissandiers bravely relaunched, hoping to find a southerly wind at a higher altitude. They spent the entire day in freezing clouds at ten thousand feet, unable to see anything beneath them, and experiencing temperatures of 14 degrees below zero, but calculating that if they could only hold on, they should be over Paris by dusk.

  When they finally came down, they found themselves suspended above the middle of the Seine and surrounded by steep cliffs and dark, impenetrable woods. They were in the forest of La Bretonne, at Heurteauville, far to the north of Rouen. To their dismay, they realised that they had gone backwards, and were now eighty-one miles from Paris. They were only saved from drowning when some villagers rowed out under the light of the moon and s
ucceeded in towing the Jean-Bart to the shore. The whole attempt was then abandoned. Afterwards, Albert Tissandier insisted that it was not an entire failure, as it gave him the subject for a wonderful engraving of the moonlit rescue.42

  Gaston now considered other fantastic schemes to get mail back into Paris. Some were proposed by the Académie des Sciences, some by fellow aeronauts, some by more eccentric members of the public. Among the most imaginative suggestions sent in were a plan to harness the eagles from the Jardin des Plantes; a blueprint for a small steam-powered dirigible balloon; the concept of floating the mail down the Seine in camouflaged containers; and the almost surreal proposal to suspend a seventy-mile aerial telegraph line, on a chain of free-flight balloons, all the way up the length of the Seine from Rouen to the capital.43

  But pigeon post remained the tried and obvious method. Baskets of homing pigeons had gone up with every balloon after the Neptune. The problem was that their return flights were unreliable, and besides, each pigeon could only carry half a dozen brief messages, laboriously copied in tiny handwriting, and slipped into a leg ring. What was required was some ingenious way of hugely increasing each pigeon’s postal payload. Each bird needed to carry not a dozen messages, but several hundred. Hence the fanciful idea of employing eagles.

  The crucial technical discovery depended not upon eagles, but upon photography. Once again, the idea seems to have been conceived by Nadar, although it was actually pioneered by another commercial Paris photographer, René Dagron.44 The key idea was the use of microfilm. Throughout October, working quietly in his Paris laboratory at the rue Neuve des Petits-Champs, Dagron invented a simple but revolutionary system of photographing letters and then reducing them to miniaturised film negatives. His method was this. He mounted hundreds of letters at a time onto huge flat boards, and then photographed them with a single exposure taken from a fixed camera. These letter-boards could be photographed as fast as they could be mounted, the letters simply being placed side by side under a retaining sheet of glass. Each photograph was then reduced to a single tiny negative, on part of a roll of collodion film. The process was very rapid, very economical, and easily repeatable. The result was a single roll of collodion microfilm, no thicker than a roll of cigarette paper, which could easily be inserted into a goose quill. The quill could then be attached to a carrier pigeon’s tail feathers with waxed silk thread.45

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